The Problem of Classic FM

By January 3, 2013ABC, History, Media, Music, Politics, Society

When I first went to the UK, in 1964, I discovered something quite wonderful. It was called FM radio, and it gave me beautifully clear stereophonic music without any crackle or distortion. Armed with my new tape recorder and an FM receiver I began to copy broadcasts from the BBC and, later, when I added a turntable to my new state-of-the-art gear, to make copies of friends’ LPs as well. I built up a fine collection on tape that way. It still exists, though I no longer have a tape recorder with which to play it.

On return to Australia I was back in the realm of AM radio, and it did not cut the mustard, at all. I bought more LPs, and joined a recorded music library, and pined for FM. My memory is that it was the Whitlam Government that finally told the PMG engineers  to establish FM radio, and to stop telling everybody that it couldn’t be done. In 1976, if I have it right, the ABC set up Classic FM, and I’ve been listening to it ever since, so to speak. It is now the aural wallpaper of our house, though I went on buying LPs and then CDs until recently.

John Holmes, the wise old bird who ran the Music for Appreciation class at U3A for many years, thought a diet of Classic FM was bad for you: you would become a hearer, rather than a listener. To listen you had to put other things aside, and concentrate on the structure of the music. I didn’t need that advice, since I cannot read or write and have music on at the same time: part of me will always be listening to the music, at the cost of what I am otherwise trying to do.

Over the years I have developed an appreciation for the sheer problem of running a radio program 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that is devoted to fine music. That is an awful lot of music to have to find over seven days — 168 hours of it, or about the same number of CDs. In a year that comes to 8736 CDs. I know the mainstream Western classical music canon reasonably well, but there is a lot of 20th century music I have never heard, though I will often know the composer’s name. What music do you program? What about music from other lands — China, Argentina, Mali? How much should be given to the new composers, who need to hear their work performed?

Then there is the problem of the target audience. As I know well from having run a music festival, you have to keep building your audience. How do you do that? There are young ones who have just discovered something by Mozart and want to hear more. There are the faithful who know what they like and want to hear it once more. And there are the impatient, who will say ‘Oh, not the New World Symphony again!’ How do you appease them?

And when do you put what on? Classic FM programs short pieces for breakfast and in the late afternoon, presumably in the belief that we are likely to be distracted at such times anyway, and unable to listen to a complete symphony. Since concert-going is part of any music-lover’s real life, listeners get a lot of recorded concerts, courtesy of the ABC’s dominance of classical music in Australia, and courtesy also of national radio systems in the rest of the world. Presumably listeners in other countries get to hear concerts from Australia. I would have to say that the quality of our symphony orchestras seems to me equal to the best from the rest. It was not always so.

Classic FM employs audience-building and loyalty strategies. Every other year we seem to have a ‘countdown’, where listeners write in to vote for their favourite symphony or concerto; after the deadline a summary is made, and then we hear the ‘top 100’ in reverse order, building to a climactic live  concert that showcases the top five. I enjoyed the most recent one, focusing on French music, which gave me a new insight into France and its culture. Tickets are given away to live concerts to listeners who answer questions correctly. Every four years whole days are given over to SIPCA — the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia (the last two words presumably to distinguish the event from anything held in Sydney, Nova Scotia).

Because there are many presenters and many choosers of the music to be played, there are occasional repetitions: you can hear the same work played twice in 24 hours — not that it matters, if you like the piece. But the choosers have favourites, too — works like the Overture to Glinka’s opera ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’, or Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C, or Tchaikovsky ballets. Chopin doesn’t seem to me to get a lot of airtime, but perhaps that’s just me and my preferences.

So I hear the music when I’m doing other things than reading or writing, get to know and like the presenters (not all of them), appreciate what the station does, and value it as an important part of my life. When FM arrived I lived in Sydney, Australia, and there was another fine-music FM station, 2MBS-FM, that I listened to often as well. In Canberra there is also ArtSound FM, which focuses, and well, on what Canberra itself is doing in the arts generally. But it is Classic FM that wakes my wife (I am already up, writing this piece), and it manages much of the music of our life. Long may it continue to do so.

I’m sure that Gough Whitlam would not put it high on his list of achievements, but as far as I’m concerned, the introduction of FM radio to Australia was a considerable improvement to my life, and he gets the guernsey.



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